China kills 20 Indian soldiers

The clash on the Galwan river, that claimed the life of the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar regiment Colonel Santosh Babu and 19 other soldiers on Monday night, was the outcome of a local situation getting out of hand, rather than any deliberate attempt to provoke a conflict. But the sheer scale of the carnage is bound to drive the situation, just as it did in the case of the Uri attack in 2016.

Recall that on Saturday, speaking to the media at the passing-out parade of the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun, Army Chief Gen MM Naravane had said that the situation was under control along the entire border with China, and “both sides are disengaging in a phased manner. We have started from the north, from the area of the Galwan river where a lot of disengagement has taken place.”

According to reports, the clash of Monday night took place at a point in the Indian side of the LAC, where troops sought to move a Chinese tent set up at a point where the Galwan enters the Shyok river. The Chinese side has been seeking to block an Indian effort to build a road from that point up the river Galwan, to patrol its side of the Line of Actual Control. However, for some reason, this road, which could not be more than 10-15 km long, is making the Chinese side nervous. So, they occupied positions on the Indian side of the unmarked LAC to prevent the road construction. This looks like a reverse replay of what the Indians did in Doklam in 2017 when the Chinese tried to build a road to the Jampheri ridge.

The LAC, that marks the border between India and China, has not been delimited on any map, leave alone demarcated on the ground. It is a notional line, of which the Chinese have their version and the Indians their own. This has enabled both sides to make overlapping claims in some14-18 points along its 4,000-km length. Since both sides patrol to the limit of the line as they see it, there are frequent faceoffs, which have been managed through a series of confidence building measures and standard operating procedures.

But there had never been any issue about the Galwan area and, in that sense, by challenging the Indian notion of the LAC there, the Chinese appear to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater—in other words, rejecting the entire 27-year effort to resolve the border dispute by narrowing the area of differences along the LAC and eventually working towards a political deal to arrive at a mutually acceptable border line.

Just why the Chinese are doing so is not clear. Perhaps, they are genuinely worried that India is assuming a deployment which can be of some danger to Aksai Chin and western Tibet. Or, Beijing is sending a message to Delhi that its policy of getting close to the US is a risky one because it has significant vulnerabilities along its common border with China. US President Donald Trump is trying to use China-bashing as a means of winning the November presidential elections and is keen to rope in India into his strategy.

Or simply, China is killing two birds with one stone. But this could be a risky strategy. The sheer scale of the casualties that the Indian side has suffered is going to shape decision making in Delhi. The Indian side is holding the LAC strongly. Given its poorer infrastructure and the greater difficulty of movement because of the terrain, India keeps its forces well up on the LAC. On the other hand, China keeps a relatively thin force in Tibet, but has the capacity of quickly augmenting it. But if India is forced to act, it will, and it can give the PLA a run for its money.

Wars often begin inadvertently when things spiral out of control. The incident of last night is the kind of event that can often make that happen. There is no reason to believe that either side wants to escalate things. If so, they should move decisively to defuse the situation. So far, we have had meetings at the level of Corps commanders. But India and China have a denser relationship with regular ministerial-level meetings, as well as informal summits between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in Wuhan in 2018 and Chennai in 2019. Maybe the time has come for the issue to be taken up at a higher, political level for resolution.

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